strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Duelling with a Flick-Knife Frog

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 19, 2012

Flick knife (by yunalee)

A Japanese researcher (and presumptive anime fan) has revealed how a frog can flick out sharp spikes from a false thumb for both combat and mating.

Noriko Iwai from the University of Tokyo, studied the Otton frog (Babina subaspera), on the Amami islands in southern Japan.  Unlike most frogs, Otton has a fifth digit, a sort of pseudo-thumb, containing the switchblade spikes.  Science Daily reports that the thumb serves mainly to hang onto the female in the muddy throes of amphibian love-making:

“While the pseudo-thumb may have evolved for mating, it is clear that they’re now used for combat,” said Dr Iwai. “The males demonstrated a jabbing response with the thumb when they were picked up, and the many scars on the male spines provided evidence of fighting.”

The conditions on the Amami islands make combat, and the need for weaponry, a key factor for the frogs’ mating success. Individuals fight over places to build nests, while the chances of a male finding a mate each night are rare, thus the ability to fight off competitors may be crucial.

Sadly, the frogs don’t face off as in the rumble scene from “West Side Story”  (or, to stick with anime, like Spike versus Vicious).  Instead, they Read the rest of this entry »


Posted in Cool Tools, Sex & Reproduction | 2 Comments »

Danger Ahead: Business as Nature’s Savior

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 18, 2012

Here’s my latest article for Yale Environment 360.

Ecosystem services is not exactly a phrase to stir the human imagination. But over the past few years, it has managed to dazzle both diehard conservationists and bottom-line business types as the best answer to global environmental decline.

For proponents, the logic is straightforward: Old-style protection of nature for its own sake has badly failed to stop the destruction of habitats and the dwindling of species. It has failed largely because philosophical and scientific arguments rarely trump profits and the promise of jobs. And conservationists can’t usually put enough money on the table to meet commercial interests on their own terms. Pointing out the marketplace value of ecosystem services was initially just a way to remind people what was being lost in the process — benefits like flood control, water filtration, carbon sequestration, and species habitat. Then it dawned on someone that, by making it possible for people to buy and sell these services, we could save the world and turn a profit at the same time.

But the rising tide of enthusiasm for PES (or payment for ecosystem services) is now also eliciting alarm and criticism. The rhetoric is at times heated, particularly in Britain, where a government plan to sell off national forests had to be abandoned in the face of fierce public opposition. (The government’s own expert panel also found that it had “greatly undervalued” what it was proposing to sell.) Writing recently in The Guardian, columnist and land rights activist George Monbiot denounced PES schemes as “another transfer of power to corporations and the very rich.” Also writing in The Guardian, Tony Juniper, a conservationist and corporate consultant, replied in effect that Monbiot and other critics should shut up, on the grounds that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 1 Comment »

You Lookin’ at Me?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2012

Borneo long-nosed frog

The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands, has recently completed a species-finding expedition in Borneo, turning up at least 160 new species.  Here’s part of the press release:

The largest numbers of new species were found among the spiders and fungi. Other new species include true bugs, beetles, snails, stalk-eyed flies, damselflies, ferns, termites and possibly a frog. Also a new location of the spectacular pitcher plant Nepenthes lowii has been found.

New blue fungus

For the fungi experts, the area was an Eldorado. József Geml: “While the plant and animal life of this mountain has been the focus of numerous research projects, Kinabalu has remained terra incognita for scientific studies on fungi. It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by this task. One of the manifestations of this diversity comes in the endless variety of shapes and colors that sometimes are truly breathtaking. While the detailed scientific work will take years, we already know that many of these species are new to science.”

Atlas Moth from Borneo

You can read more and check out a few more photos here.

Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | 2 Comments »

The Wallace-over-Darwin Groundswell

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2012

Wallace over Darwin, on the arms of a biologist at Auburn University (Photo: Richard Conniff)

OK, I confess, I deliberately posed this picture to put Wallace on top.  But, sad to say, there’s also an obvious forensic clue in the photograph indicating that Darwin came first.  If you spot the clue, please say so in comments.

And if you are completely feckin’ baffled by what I am going on about, Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection.  But unlike Darwin, he had the balls to say it out loud.  A letter from Wallace explaining his ideas in 1858 is what finally drove Darwin to publish the theory for which he had been gathering evidence over the previous 20 years.  The question of whether Wallace or Darwin deserves credit for the biggest idea in the history of science remains hotly contested, though largely by people who admire them both.  (You can read about it in my book The Species Seekers.)

Meanwhile, in other Wallace news, the world’s leading Wallace maven, George Beccaloni, recently updated his list of species named after Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Social Status, The Species Seekers | 5 Comments »

Out with the Big Fish

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 14, 2012

Blue Marlin by James Prosek

Author and artist James Prosek and I are working together on a National Geographic project.  So I was interested to see that he has a show that just opened at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Here’s part of the press release for the new show, which runs till Jan. 21:

PHILADELPHIA (October 3, 2012) – James Prosek has had a personal experience with each of the saltwater fish he has painted and hand-picked for a new exhibit opening Oct. 13 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

“You could even call each one a self-portrait,” said the Connecticut naturalist, artist and fisherman whose latest book, Ocean Fishes: Paintings of Saltwater Fish, debuted this month (Rizzoli New York). Fourteen life-size watercolors from the book, including a stunning 15-foot-long Blue Marlin, are featured in the exhibit James Prosek: Ocean Fishes in the Art of Science Gallery through Jan. 21. The exhibit is free with museum admission.

Dubbed “the Audubon of the fishing world” by The New York Times, Prosek wants visitors to know that his highly-detailed paintings of Atlantic sailfish, king mackerel, mako shark, swordfish, and more are not meant to represent a species as in a field guide. “I am painting an individual fish that I had a personal experience with,” he said. “The paintings are not as much about the fish as our relationships as humans to the fish.”

The show is based on Prosek’s new book, Ocean Fishes.  Here’s an excerpt:

If I try to pinpoint exactly where this project started, it would have to be when I stopped at a Citgo station in Cape Cod, to inquire about an old, red Chevy truck for sale in the lot in 2001. It was there I met the owner, Norman St. Pierre, in his office. On the office wall were the most intriguing photos of a man standing on a platform that reached far off the bow of a boat, throwing a spear at what looked like a very big fish. There were also photos of a deck full of giant bluefin tuna, 700- to 900-pound fish that dwarfed the fisherman standing over them. I could not believe these fish were so huge, much bigger than big men. They looked like sculptures—polished marble sides, glistening steel backs, fins like blades of metal, eyes like miniature Earths with atmospheres and seas and forests and deserts. Besides running the gas station, Norman was a tuna spotter—a pilot who flew his small Cessna over the ocean, spotting giant bluefin tuna and directing a harpoon boat to the fish. After a brief conversation, in which I evidently voiced my passion for fishes, Norman offered to take me up in the plane the following summer, and to ask the fishermen he worked with if Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | 1 Comment »

The Minister Who Invented the Modern Bullet

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2012

The year of 1807 was better for hunters than birds.  In the wetlands north of Aberdeen, Scotland, a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Alexander Forsyth, was engaged in a war of wits with local ducks.

They’d figured out how to dodge a shot by diving when the spark from his flintlock produced a flash of gunpowder in the firing pan of his muzzle-loader.  Dampness on the North Sea coast also frequently caused Forsyth’s weapon to misfire.

After much tinkering, he devised and patented the first percussion-ignition device, a sort of metal perfume bottle for injecting a tiny amount of mercury fulminate into the chamber of the gun, where the impact of a hammer could ignite it and spark the gunpowder charge far more reliably (and without alarming the birds).

Forsyth’s invention, patented in 1807, would lead by mid-century to the development of the metal percussion cap and the modern bullet.  It would prove an essential tool for species seekers, particularly in wet climates—and also the chief instrument of the bloodiest military conflicts in the history of the Earth, from Gettysburg and Gallipoli to the Somme.

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | 1 Comment »

Another Defenseless Caterpillar to Scare the Piss out of You

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 10, 2012

It’s the caterpillar of the imperial fruit sucking moth (Pyllodes imperialis) in northern Queensland, Australia.   But it looks more like something Ridley Scott dreamed up for “Alien,” then discarded as just a little too creepy.

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | 2 Comments »

Eternal Freeze Frame

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 9, 2012

Ancient spider attack. This is the only fossil ever discovered that shows a spider attacking prey in its web. Preserved in amber, it’s about 100 million years old. (Photo: Oregon State University)

I love this image of predator and prey caught in 100-million-year-old amber.

Here’s the press release from Science Daily.  But I’m not sure why they refer to the presence of a male spider’s body part in the same bit of amber as evidence of social behavior.  Isn’t it more likely that the predator here is a female spider, and the male body part is just the sorry evidence of a past mating?

Researchers have found what they say is the only fossil ever discovered of a spider attack on prey caught in its web — a 100 million-year-old snapshot of an engagement frozen in time.

The extraordinarily rare fossils are in a piece of amber that preserved this event in remarkable detail, an action that took place in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar in the Early Cretaceous between 97-110 million years ago, almost certainly with dinosaurs wandering nearby.

Aside from showing the first and only fossil evidence of a spider attacking prey in its web, the piece of amber also contains the body of a male spider in the same web. This provides the oldest evidence of social behavior in spiders, which still exists in some species but is fairly rare. Most spiders have solitary, often cannibalistic lives, and males will not hesitate to attack immature species in the same web.

“This juvenile spider was going to make a meal out of a tiny parasitic wasp, but never quite got to it,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus of zoology at Oregon State University and world expert on insects trapped in amber. He outlined the findings in a new publication in the journal Historical Biology.

“This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web,” Poinar said. “This was the wasp’s worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kill or Be Killed, Sex & Reproduction | Leave a Comment »

How Bird Banding Got Started. With a Fish.

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 5, 2012

Today’s the birthday of animal-banding, one of the most useful techniques for studying the movements and longevity of birds, sea turtles, and other creatures.

It started almost 800 years ago, with a fish and an emperor.

Frederick II, naturalist and Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor was a man of “insatiable curiosity” about “everything from astronomy to zoology, especially zoology,” according to Willy Ley’s Dawn of Zoology. Frederick was also probably the only person ever excommunicated three times by the Catholic Church.

Ley writes:

“A typical day in Frederick’s life included checking on edicts, correcting a translation from the Arabic made by one of his scholars, dissecting a bird, and dictating letters to Moslem rulers.  These letters are collectively known as the ‘Sicilian Questions’–they consisted of lists of questions, about things which the emperor wanted to know  ‘because my philosophers have no good answers to these questions.’  He repeatedly sent a diver–named Nicholas but called ichthys (the fish) to the bottom of the Strait of Messina to tell him what lived down there.  When a fisherman caught an exceptionally large pike, Frederick personally inserted an inscribed copper ring into its gills and Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Special Animal Friends: Leopard Meets Impala

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2012

This is a nice piece of video.   Don’t stop after the first little bit of animal friendship, 30 seconds in.  There’s more. Oh, dang, it’s just an instant replay.  But num-num-num.

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »